Roadblocks to boxing getting more exposure on non-premium TV

Kevin Iole
Yahoo Sports

Boxing has had an uneasy history with television over the past 35 years. It was once a staple, but for a variety of reasons, it has never regained its luster on a regular basis.

More often than not, television executives look at boxing as if it were a communicable disease. As a result, it's become the domain of cable and, more significantly, premium cable television.

Boxing matches are typically on pay-per-view, which is the case when Floyd Mayweather (R) fights. (AP)
Boxing matches are typically on pay-per-view, which is the case when Floyd Mayweather (R) fights. (AP)

Even within the boxing industry, few are optimistic about a return to wide-scale success on television because of the significant roadblocks that are in its way.

Boxing manager Al Haymon is about to unveil a series later this year that will air on NBC Sports Network and, occasionally, on NBC itself, but expectations for it aren't high among boxing insiders.

Several boxing promoters who didn't want to be identified by name referred derisively to Haymon's series before it's ever presented a fight of any kind on NBC. Two of them, who are from different companies, called the series "The Mismatch of the Week."

Kathy Duva, the CEO of Main Events, promoted a series on NBC/NBCSN for two years before Haymon's company bought the time and Duva lost her run.

She expressed concern whether Haymon's series on NBC will focus on quality matches since Haymon has a vested interest in the fights.

"I've been told that they're constantly telling the people making their matches that their marching orders are, 'Make sure our guys win,' " Duva said. "What I told our matchmakers was, 'Give me a fight that tells me a story. Give me a great fight that has a story to tell.' "

There are plenty of land mines out there for promoters, managers and, most of all, anyone at a television network seriously considering getting involved in boxing at a significant level. But Patrick Crakes, the senior vice president of programming, research & content strategy for Fox Sports, is undeterred. Fox Sports 1 has had success with boxing since it began airing the cards at its inception in August 2013 and it's going to open a series on Friday with a new promoter, music mogul Jay Z's Roc Nation.

Crakes said boxing is far more than just filler content for the 24-hour sports network and said he thinks Fox Sports 1 can help the sport grow. He believes that eventually, higher level fights could be held on the network.

"We aren't looking at this as filler programming at all," Crakes told Yahoo Sports. "This is a significant commitment to serious, high-level, high-profile sport. Budget has always been an issue. For years, it's been relegated to pay TV, but now, more and more it's been finding its way back to open pipe television.

Kathy Duva (Main Events)
Kathy Duva (Main Events)

"We think there is a lot of value to create opportunity to create value in the boxing space for ourselves and our boxing partners. We're taking a look at expanding what we're doing in boxing."

Budget and promotion are a major issue. Haymon is actually buying the air time himself, while only HBO and Showtime pay significant money to buy rights to top fights.

The television networks other than the premium cable networks don't pay much in license fees and frequently expect the promoter to pay production costs, which can cost between $40,000 and $60,000.

One longtime promoter who asked for anonymity said it's impossible to make it work.

"You can't make any money and you're just losing, losing, losing [when they pay that kind of license fee]," the promoter said. "Yeah, sure, it's great for them [the television networks] because they're getting programming paid for by someone else. But promoters can't survive on it."

Top Rank vice president Carl Moretti has promoted shows on virtually every network that has televised boxing in the last 25 years. He saw the Tuesday Night Fights on the USA Network work exceptionally well, but he's also seen many series begin with grandiose plans only to fall flat.

He called developing a series on a sports cable "extremely complex," but said there are ways it could be successful.

With a license fee between $200,000 and $400,000 per show, Moretti said promoters could put on great matches, make money and draw ratings. But it's not that simple.

"USA Network's success [with boxing] is based on the fact they were on every Tuesday night at 9 o'clock," Moretti. "They'd worry about who was fighting after that. They wanted to let people know, the fights are on Tuesday at 9. That had to be first.

"Then, if you can provide a show each week, you'll get the viewers. But it's so complicated. I've lived this my whole life. You have to deal with selling a show to a network guy whose boss hasn't heard of these guys. Some promoters and managers want to protect their guys and won't put them in with anyone. It makes it so difficult."

Dusty Hernandez-Harrison (R) is 24-0 going into the bout with Tommy Rainone (Getty)
Dusty Hernandez-Harrison (R) is 24-0 going into the bout with Tommy Rainone (Getty)

A show like the one Fox Sports 1 is going to air on Friday with Roc Nation, which features Dusty Hernandez-Harrison against Tommy Rainone in the main event, can't compete salary-wise against what HBO and Showtime offer. But Crakes said it takes time and that if the success continues, it could build. He said Fox Sports 1 has averaged between 175,000 and 200,000 viewers per show and had a peak of 350,000 for a Victor Ortiz bout last year.

Duva's series on NBCSN did slightly better numbers than that.

So Crakes said he's optimistic that boxing can be a good addition to FS1's lineup and actually increase in significance over time.

"I think it starts with what we're doing now and then slowly we figure out the economics and work toward that," he said. " … As we slowly continue to put more boxing on and we work to put more high profile fighters on, we'll attract more viewers and I think the economics will take care of themselves.

"There are a lot of ways to go about it. It starts with making the fights and having boxing on television. We're certainly doing that, and there is upside to having higher quality fights on. Working out the economics is important, but I think there's room to do that. We're going to continue to move toward finding a way to put boxing on television that is as high a quality as we can get."

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